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Notes from the LJCC

The Israelite Samaritan Today: Keeping Ancient Customs in Political and Social Life between Palestinians and Israel

Benyamim Tsedaka

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[I was slightly surprised the speaker did not talk about the history of the Samaritans, which you can read in my notes from Limmud 2009. The speaker's talk assumed as given the Samaritan view of their history (i.e. disregarding everything negative about their origins in the Jewish Bible), but had a conciliatory attitude towards the origins of the Jewish religion (see the above link if you need this explaining).]

The speaker is 125th generation born in Israel. He started by explaining why he was called Benyamim; [I'll blog that when I get to the relevant parsha in my Samaritan Torah notes].

The speaker has been working for five years on a parallel comparative version of the Torah in English translation, with his commentary. This book will be coming out at the end of this month. [After all that work I put in figuring it out myself! Well, remember, you read it here first (for the first dozen or so sidros of the Torah)!]

The speaker's wife, Miriam, is Jewish; they were married by the (Samaritan) High Priest. [At the time of their marriage, Jews were the only non-Samaritans the community would accept as spouses.] The Samaritans are an integral part of the State of Israel, including serving in the IDF. For them the State of Israel is as much a fulfilment of the national dream as for Jews. The speaker served the Jewish Agency for twenty-five years.

[The speaker talked about the reality of living in Israel; and invited people to lunch in Nablus, on a Tuesday or Wednesday (except in November and December, when he is abroad lecturing).]

Half the community live in Kiriat Luza. Luza is one of the ancient names of Mt Gerizim, which God chose for an abode in the Samaritan Torah. In order to emphasise the holiness of Mt Gerizim, there was the blessings and curse ceremony with six tribes (mostly the sons of Jacob's wives) on Mt Gerizim to state the blessings, and six tribes (mostly the sons of his concubines) on Mt Ebal to state the curses. In between lies Nablus—a name derived from Greek Neapolis [New Town]. The original name is Shechem, which means shoulder; it's on the shoulder of the two mountains.

People talk about the Jewish people and the Samaritan people, but they are fictional. There is no Jewish people and no Samaritan people; just the Israelite people. There are two traditions, the Jewish one created during the Babylonian exile, and the Samaritan tradition, created in the land as they never left.

God's Chosen Place

Where is the chosen place of the Almighty? At the time of Moses Jerusalem was a pagan, Jebusite city; it only became an Israelite city in the time of King David, and only holy when Solomon built his Temple there. But there was a second holy place the whole time, on Mt Gerizim. As it says in the Book of Joshua [chapter 9], Jotham the son of Gideon gathered the whole people and said his proverb on the summit of Mt Gerizim.

The Samaritans nowadays consist of members of the tribes of Menashe, Ephraim and Levi. The priests are the largest grouping. The High Priest is the spiritual leader of the community. The current one is the 171st generation of High Priest since Aaron.

He is elected according to the principle of the eldest son. This has been the case for the last 375 years. Before that, 112 High Priests were directly descended from the family of Pinḥas. [In 1624 the line of Eleazar b. Aaron (the father of Pinḥas) died out, and the priesthood transferred to the descendants of Aaron's other surviving son, Ithamar. I find this ironic, given how the discrepancy between the descendants of Eleazar given in the Book of Chronicles and the High Priest Eli, mentioned in the Book of Judges is also explained by the High Priesthood transferring for a period to the Ithamarite branch. The irony is because Eli is held by the Samaritans to be the fraudulent founder of the Shiloh sanctuary, the precursor of Solomon's Temple, i.e. important in the Jewish story. (To be fair, Eli doesn't get a good rap in the Jewish tradition either, though.)]

Demographics and Communal Revival

During the fourth and fifth centuries CE there were a million and a half Samaritans, but between 484 and 576 they lost 75% of their numbers in three great revolts against the Byzantines, reducing the number to 300,000. Then 1300 years of foreign rules—Arabs and Mamlukes and Ottomans—persecuted [lacuna: the Samaritans such that by] March 1919 there were only one hundred and forty-one Samaritans left. There was a good chance people would read about [lacuna: my people in history books in future]. But at the last moment they found "Good Samaritans", who helped them in a decisive way to help them live.

The first was Warren, a Christian from Michigan. They met at a convention in 1903. Someone invited the High Priest to address the convention. When he came, his physical appearance—height, and turban and robes—was so impressive that everyone asked, "What can I do for you?" They expected calls for money, but he said, "You are the president of the Sunday schools; why don't you make a school for our children?"

They said with 150 people left, mostly old, you still have hope? "Of course I will do that for you." For nineteen years, he was with the community. When he died in 1919, the Almighty looked on his community and said, "I will not let them die."

In 1905, Yitzchak Ben-Tsevi, a Jewish young man, a Zionist activist working in the tax department in the port of Jaffa was searching for an Arabic teacher. He went to the market in Jaffa and found a Samaritan who was the owner of one of the shops. Abraham Tsedaka, the speaker's grandfather, asked about him, and invited him to live with him. Instead of learning Arabic, he ended up learning about the Samaritan people, and decided nothing would be too great to help the community survive. And he succeeded. Ben-Tsevi would go on to become the second President of the State of Israel.

The numbers of the community has now risen fivefold since then. They live now in Ḥolon or on the Mountain. Everyone living in Ḥolon has a summer house on the Mountain.

Customs and Religion

There is no Samaritan religion, nor any Jewish religion. Instead, we have Samaritan tradition, and Jewish tradition; both based on the 613 commandments of the Torah. We have different interpretations of them, though, particularly with regard to their practice. The Jews have the Oral Law. The Samaritans also have an oral law, but it is not written down; it goes from generation to generation—as the Jews did before the time of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi.

For example, the Samaritans celebrate Passover exactly as described in the Book of Exodus. You can relive the Exodus on Mt Gerizim on the fourteenth day of the month of Aviv, corresponding to the Jewish month of Nisan.

There is no comparison between the Jewish seder and what is written in the text. [The seder ritual, which today characterises the first night of Pesach for Jews, is thought to have arisen in reaction to the Destruction of the Second Temple.] On Mt Gerizim, however, the Samaritans still offer the lambs as it is written; and they eat matzah, which is folded with the roasted flesh of the lamb. [Hillel the Elder ate the Paschal sacrifice, matza and maror as a כורך, which is normally translated sandwich. However] כורך means "envelope"; the Samaritan matzah is soft, and can be folded around the meat.

Because the Samaritans' leap years are not synchronised with the Jewish one, the Samaritan Passover is not always at the same time as the Jewish one.

They celebrate their Succot the same way Nehemiah did when the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile. [I think he means Ezra here:]

Ezra 3:1-6 עזרא א-ג ו

When the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. Then Yéshua` the son of Yoṣādāq arose, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbāvel b. Shə'altiél and his brothers, and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as is written in the law of Moses the man of God. They set the altar on its bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, morning and evening burnt offerings.

They kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number, according to the custom, as the duty of every day required. After that they offered the continual burnt offering, and that of the new moons, and of all the set feasts of the Lord that were consecrated, and of everyone that willingly offered a freewill offering to the Lord. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings unto the Lord—and the foundation of the Temple of the Lord was not even yet laid!

וַיִּגַּע הַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּעָרִים וַיֵּאָסְפוּ הָעָם כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד אֶל־יְרוּשָׁלִָם׃ וַיָּקָם יֵשׁוּעַ בֶּן־יוֹצָדָק וְאֶחָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים וּזְרֻבָּבֶל בֶּן־שְׁאַלְתִּיאֵל וְאֶחָיו וַיִּבְנוּ אֶת־מִזְבַּח אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַעֲלוֹת עָלָיו עֹלוֹת כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אִישׁ־הָאֱלֹהִים׃ וַיָּכִינוּ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ עַל־מְכוֹנֹתָיו כִּי בְּאֵימָה עֲלֵיהֶם מֵעַמֵּי הָאֲרָצוֹת ויעל (וַיַּעֲלוּ) עָלָיו עֹלוֹת לַה׳ עֹלוֹת לַבֹּקֶר וְלָעָרֶב׃

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת־חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת כַּכָּתוּב וְעֹלַת יוֹם בְּיוֹם בְּמִסְפָּר כְּמִשְׁפַּט דְּבַר־יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ׃ וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן עֹלַת תָּמִיד וְלֶחֳדָשִׁים וּלְכָל־מוֹעֲדֵי ה׳ הַמְקֻדָּשִׁים וּלְכֹל מִתְנַדֵּב נְדָבָה לַה׳׃ מִיּוֹם אֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי הֵחֵלּוּ לְהַעֲלוֹת עֹלוֹת לַה׳ וְהֵיכַל ה׳ לֹא יֻסָּד׃

The Samaritans' custom with the Four Species [which the Torah merely commands us to "take", not explaining what this means] is, rather than taking them to the synagogue to wave, to build the succah with them.

Distinctive customs of the Samaritans

Settling in the Land of Israel

The Samaritans never left their own country. For Jews it's not a big deal to leave the country and settle elsewhere; for Samaritans it is. It means they're not considering themselves Israelites. (The Samaritans don't call themselves Samaritans, i.e. inhabitants of Samaria.) Historically Samaritans have sometimes been forced to live elsewhere, such as Damascus, but they never stayed there, and were often forced to convert to other religions, and eventually lost their identity.

Keeping Shabbat

They have only seven festivals, from Passover to Shemini Atseret [the Jewish festivals of Purim and Chanukah are post-Toraitic]. The main one is Shabbat. They wear special clothes; they don't cook, they don't turn lights on or off more than necessary or in emergency cases. So they turn a light on on Friday afternoon and it remains on until after sunset the following day. (They don't look for the stars [to let the Sabbath out: the day is sunset to sunset, not sunset to nightfall].) They don't smoke, and everything is prepared before Shabbat. On Sabbath, they go to synagogue. Women only go to pray with the men on festivals. During Shabbat they visit each other.

Passover sacrifice

See above.

Laws of purity and impurity

There is no complicated or sophisticated interpretation of the words of Torah; they interpret it in the simplest way. Hence when Leviticus says a woman has to be separated from the activity of the family after having had her period, the Samaritans have a separate room for the woman to live for seven days. She still goes to her place of work or study; but at home, rests: the husband takes over the duties of running the household—cooking, looking after the children, etc.

After the birth of a boy, a woman is separated for forty-one days, including the day of circumcision on the eighth day. [The Samaritan Torah explicitly says that circumcision must be on the eighth day.] In the case of premature birth, the High Priest has ruled that the incubator takes the place of the mother's womb, so the circumcision takes place eight days after the removal from the incubator.

After the birth of a girl, the woman is separated for eighty days.


The Samaritans keep kashrut strictly. It is written in the Torah "Don't seethe a kid in its mother's milk"—the gematria of גדי (kid) is seventeen: the number of species the Torah said can be eaten. These kinds they don't eat with milk. (The other kinds are forbidden anyway.)

As the Torah say, when you have a halachic argument you can't resolve, you should go to the High Priest and he will resolve it. So their custom is after meat, not to eat milk for half a day; and after milk, not to eat milk for quarter of a day.

The speaker claims the Samaritan pronunciation [of Hebrew] is the language of the Second Temple period. [That's an interesting claim, but one I am sceptical about unless given evidence.]

The speaker is the editor since its foundation 44 years ago, of the Samaritan newspaper, ב״א.

In 2008 a Qumran fragment was found of Deut. 27:46 about building an altar on Mt Gerizim. [That's interesting, because there are Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts which correspond to the Samaritan version of the Torah, but without the changes, like this, that "Samaritanise" it (i.e. the Samaritan Torah consists of two layers, an older Jewish layer representing a different textual tradition from the Masoretic Text, and a younger and thin Samaritan layer. Now why would a Samaritan text have ended up at Qumran given the antagonism between Samaritans and Jews at the time?]

[Finally, a few comments based on questions about photos we were shown:] Praying with arms outspread: begging from God. Bowing with face to ground: an Israelite custom, described in Exodus.

Jewish learning notes index


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